When George Jacobs heard about the children's Holocaust project in Whitwell, Tenn., he immediately thought of Malka.
She was the emaciated young woman who had kissed the mezuzah on his lapel when the American airman had visited the infirmary at Mauthausen after World War II. When Jacobs returned several hours later, he learned that she had died; the memory was so painful that he told no one until he read about how in 2000, Whitwell middle-schoolers were collecting 6 million paper clips to commemorate the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
Jacobs promptly mailed in a clip to represent Malka.
"[It] was so much of a closure for me," he says in the powerful Miramax documentary, "Paper Clips." "Malka has found a final resting place, not in Austria, Germany or Poland but in Appalachia, Tenn. I can't get over that."
Indeed, Whitwell (population 1,600) -- with just two traffic lights, two gas stations, 10 churches and no Jews -- seems an unusual place for a Holocaust memorial, especially one that has become an international cause cél?bre. But the low-income former mining community isn't the first rural Christian town to teach tolerance through the Shoah, and to earn headlines in the process. Last week, students from Uniontown High in Uniontown, Kan., were in Los Angeles performing their internationally acclaimed play, "Life in a Jar," about Holocaust rescuer Irena Sendler.
Whitwell's project -- like Uniontown's -- began because "our children didn't have much opportunity to learn about other people," middle school principal Linda Hooper said. So, in 1998, she sent assistant principal David Smith to a teacher training conference to "find something that would help students learn about other cultures."
He found it in a Holocaust educational seminar.
"We had never discussed the subject in our high school, and to be honest I don't think I'd ever met a Jew," Smith told The Journal. "When the survivor was done speaking, I was in tears and I thought, 'This is it. This is how we're going to teach tolerance to our children."
That October, Smith and a co-teacher began reading aloud to students from books such as Eli Wiesel's "Night." When the concept of 6 million proved incomprehensible to the middle-schoolers, the teenagers resolved to launch a collection to better understand the magnitude of the Shoah. They decided on paper clips after learning that Norwegians had worn them to show solidarity with Jews during the war.
After German journalists wrote articles and a book on the project, letters and clips from 19 countries inundated the school, including submissions from Tom Hanks and President Clinton.
"We counted paper clips night and day that summer," Hooper said.
Meanwhile, students scrapped their initial idea to melt the collection into a sculpture: "These paper clips represented people who had been through the fire, and we did not want that to happen again," Hooper said. Their new goal: to house the clips and documents in an actual cattle car that had transported Jews to concentration camps.
As international media descended on Whitwell, Hooper felt her community was undergoing trial by fire. Newspapers cited the town's proximity to the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and to the courthouse where John T. Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in the 1925 "monkey trial."
"It was the image that people often get of the South: that we're all stupid, prejudiced rednecks," Hooper said.
Thus she ignored the Virginia-based filmmakers who called her twice a day for weeks about making "Paper Clips" in 2001. Hooper refused to speak with them, in fact, until she had "phoned everyone for whom they'd ever made a documentary," she said.
When co-directors Joe Fab and Elliot Berlin finally sat down with her that spring, "she ushered us in, then kept us waiting," Berlin recalled. When the tall, silver-haired principal finally looked up from her work, "She said, 'If I let you make this film, and you make my children look like ignorant hillbillies, I will eat your heart for breakfast," Fab said. "Somehow, we got her to understand that we wanted to make the movie because we already respected her children."
Over the next 18 months, the directors captured the students as they sorted more than 30 million clips and awaited the cattle car that had been purchased for $6,000 from a German railroad museum. It arrived, via ship and rail, in time for the memorial's dedication on Nov. 9, 2001, attended by the entire town.
"It was amazing seeing children sing 'We Shall Never Forget' who had never previously heard of the Holocaust," Fab said.
Equally moving was the final interview with Smith: "When the project began, I was very prejudiced in many areas," the assistant principal says in the film. "[The memorial] has made me a better ... father, a better teacher, a better man."
Jacobs is grateful for the endeavor.
"It's giving [Malka] a resting place among young people who love her and have compassion for her, and you couldn't ask for a better resting place than that," he said.
"Paper Clips," which recently won the Jewish Image Award for crosscultural understanding, opens Nov. 24 in Los Angeles. The Anti-Defamation League will provide educational materials on the film this spring; information will be available then at www.adl.org.
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